In just over a month’s time, Martin Ho will be giving his final team talk before his SK Brann Kvinner side host reigning champions Barcelona in the quarter final of the UEFA Women’s Champions League.

To be managing in the knockout stages of the biggest club competition in Europe would have been beyond Ho’s wildest expectations but after such a strong start to life in management, facing the world’s best will be a welcome challenge for the English coach.

In June 2023, Ho left his position as assistant manager at Manchester United to become the head coach of the Norwegian topflight side, with interest from clubs across Europe. He had previously worked at Everton and Liverpool before his stint at United as assistant to Casey Stoney and Marc Skinner.

Under the Liverpudlian’s leadership, SK Brann became Norway’s first-ever group-stage representative in the UEFA Women’s Champions League and it is the first group stage appearance from any Norwegian club since Rosenborg’s men’s side way back in 2007.

After playing a part in the growth of the women’s game during his time in the WSL, Ho is hoping to have a positive impact on women’s football in Norway. He said: “My job is to try and develop Norwegian football and give it a bigger platform than when I got there. If I can help the league and Norwegian football grow even 1% while I’m here, then I can come away from that job at any point, feeling, happy to have supported the country to try and better women’s sports.

“In England, women’s football now is a totally different beast, I don’t think anywhere in world football competes with them being brutally honest. In Norway they are still building and trying to build up that commercial and interest, but also trying to build up professionalism within the league.”

As a club there have been significant efforts made to ensure the longevity of the team by setting up a dedicated youth academy for girls. The move follows a tricky period for SK Brann where they lost nine elite level players to big teams across Europe.

Alongside the challenge of a new league and new language, Ho also faced the prospect of joining mid-season and attempting to apply his style of play during the season. However, the 33-year-old manager hit the ground running with seven wins and one draw without conceding a goal in his first eight fixtures and finishing fourth in the Toppserien.

SK Brann were able to build on this run of form as the Champions League qualifiers approached, beating Lokomotiv Stara Zagora, Anderlecht, and Glasgow City LFC without conceding a goal to reach the group stages.

“For Brann as a club to get into the group stages, is like being in the final, but getting out of group stages is like winning the final” Ho said.  The Norwegian club finished second in a group consisting of eight-time Champions league winning Lyon, Slavia Praha and St Pölten to set up the tie with Barcelona.

As preparations begin for the quarter finals this week for SK Brann, Ho welcomes the challenge of facing the Spanish giants, he said: “It’s an opportunity for the players to go and play against the world’s best players and in my opinion, arguably the best team in world football and has been for the last three four years under Jonatan (Giraldez).

“I’ve said to the players it gives them an opportunity to put themselves in a shop window for future moves if you perform well in two legs against this team. Whether in your head, you think it’s going to be a tough ask. If you can’t be motivated to play in these games, then you’re probably in the wrong sport.”

Barcelona, the 2023 Women’s Champions League winners have reached the final in four out of the last five years and if SK Brann weren’t underdogs already, then the prospect of facing 2023 Ballon d’Or winner Aitana Bonmati and nine of the World Cup winning Spain squad, will only add to the occasion when they visit the Åsane Arena on March 20th.

Despite the odds being stacked against them Ho is confident of causing an upset, he said: “We go into the fixture with the belief and confidence that we know we’re a good team and we know we can hurt teams when we want to. Hopefully we were able to capitalise on the moments they give us.”

SK Brann are located in what is described as “the capital of the fjords” of Bergen, the place that Ho now calls home. After swapping the rain of England for the snow of Norway, moving abroad has presented challenges both on and off the pitch, and living in a new culture: “I think the biggest thing for me when I got there was trying to feel comfortable in the city and to understand the language. I am able to speak and understand a lot of the language within context now.

“I’ve been working extremely hard after over the last six months. The players, the staff, the club have been outstanding. They’ve given me all the support I need, they’ve been there when I’ve needed that support in terms of when I first got there and they still do now.

“Also, adapting to the managerial lifestyle as you are in the driving seat trying to make big decisions on new players, renewing players contracts and dealing with the board and CEO.”

SK Brann have acknowledged his success so far as head coach by rewarding him with a two-year contract extension, keeping him at the club until 2026. It was an easy decision for Ho to sign on after a strong start to life in Scandinavia. It comes at a crucial stage as the domestic season kicks off just four days before the crucial UWCL first leg.

After cementing their place in Norwegian football history, Ho and his team are hoping to achieve the unthinkable and cause, what will be seen as one of the greatest upsets in UWCL history.